Poet Matthew Zapruder '89 considers time well spent

Zapruder did not always know he wanted to be a poet. “Because of who I was and how I was brought up, I came to think that certain things like politics, economics and law were more valuable than literature,” he said.

Before long, however, he “gradually sort of realized how much I loved literature, especially poetry.” This recognition required time and thought. “it never really occurred to me, until I was somewhere in my twenties, that I didn’t want to just study poetry, or write about it critically. I wanted to create it,” Zapruder admitted.

Like many other Amherst graduates, Zapruder recalls his days at the College as an enjoyable and fulfilling period, though a confusing time nonetheless. “Being around lots of smart students and professors and having lots of attention paid to my mind and my education only helped me become more intellectually enlightened. I look back on Amherst as a time of great privilege,” he said.

The creative process

The creative process

During his senior year, Zapruder embarked on the task of writing an honors thesis. “I started writing a thesis in Russian right-wing politics … but I was bored. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t really listen to myself until halfway through my senior year,” he explained. With the help of professors who understood Zapruder’s internal struggle, he was able to switch the focus of his thesis to literature. “When I was ready,” he said, “there were great professors and people there to help me.”

Being an artist-particularly a poet-creates myriad difficulties. “The paradox of the whole thing is that to some degree you have to learn to accept the fact that you have to be willing to live in a state of idleness, because if you fill up your time with jobs and activities, you won’t have time to write,” he said.

This struggle is something with which many people cannot identify. “You have to have a certain strength of character to know that that idleness is work too, and that it is something that writers, and many artists, have to learn,” Zapruder commented. “A lot of people don’t realize that it’s very stressful not to have a schedule or a secure financial situation or career path or not know what to do to take the next step in your career,” he said.

“That [lifestyle] is sort alienating and lonely,” said Zapruder. “People who want to be a writer or an artist of any kind need to know that, especially in America where it is totally unacceptable to not be securely employed.” Zapruder compared being an artist to being an athlete. Much like athletes, artists have to be “in shape,” and not get paid for it. “You may go through a few months not writing anything that is worthwhile, but you have to be ready when the inspiration comes.” Challenges with time are common among artists, but according to Zapruder poets have unique concerns.

“The one thing about being a poet that is unlike other creative things is [there is no guarantee] of receiving any financial compensation for what you produce,” he said, adding, “[Many] artists can sell their product. Almost all poets, on the other hand, have to find another way to support themselves.”

This reality serves as both a curse and blessing. “Writing poems is completely free from financial obligations,” Zapruder admitted. “I’m only responsible to myself and the aesthetic judgment of people in charge of things like publishing companies. That makes poetry interesting in that it frees it, but also creates the danger that it is an art form that is not inclined towards people.” Unlike novelists, “Poets do not think about writing stuff that people are going to want to read, poets only do that if it interests them on an aesthetic level,” Zapruder explained.

More than a day job

More than a day job

Other than a poet, Zapruder is the founder and editor of Verse Press, a non-profit poetry press, and a teacher. “Teaching is how I make money,” he simplified, adding, “I like teaching a lot.” Next year, Zapruder will be teaching at the New School, a well-known progressive university in New York City.

One of Zapruder’s most recent accomplishments has been wining the Tupelo Press Editors’ Prize, which led to the publication of his first book, American Linden. “It took me a while to write it,” he admitted.

After receiving his master’s degree in Slavic Languages from University of California Berkeley, Zapruder went on to study at UMass in the fall of 1994.

“Some of the poems in my book are from as early as that time. This book took a long time and it was very difficult, but ultimately very rewarding,” he said.

Publication was a big step. “Getting published was awesome as a writer. It often takes a lot longer to be established in your career. Not only am I happy with the product, but I know I have some level of acceptance,” he said

Meanwhile, Zapruder has been nominated by a pool of well-known poets to spend one year as the writer-in-residence in Stonington, Conn. in the former residence of James Merrill ’47. Merrill is one of the most influential poets of the twentieth century, and coincidentally also a graduate of the College. Merrill left his apartment to the town of Stonington to be reserved for the use of a well-respected poet. Zapruder will reside in Stonington from January until June where he will be working on his second book, as well as teaching at the New School.

As for plans for the future, Zapruder is only sure of one thing: that he intends to continue writing books of poems. “That’s what I do,” he said.